Most applications are not very good

There are a lot of conversations about how to improve your essays (like Essay Hell, for example), highlight significant characteristics about yourself, and all of the other wonderful ways to help your application. In the echo chamber world of college application preparation, of which you are probably familiar if you are reading this blog, it may seem like every applicant is putting forward stellar applications. Some students utilize these to great effect, but most don’t.

This isn’t the case. Most applications that universities receive are simply not very good.

For every girl admitted to five Ivy League schools for her Costco essay, there are a thousand unremarkable writing samples that get lost in the various admissions committee application mountains. Mediocre submissions are the norm and not the exception, which I suspect is as true for UT-Austin as it is the Ivy League.

That kid in your AP Calculus class bragging about his 34 on the ACT and summer research position or the gloat on College Confidential shaking his feathers at having perfect 5s on his AP exam and being a national merit finalist? Probably also not putting forward a quality application.

“But that doesn’t make any sense!”

After all, there are so many talented students with so much to offer. What do you mean they are not putting forward strong applications?

There is a major misconception that just because there are test prep or application resources and services that everyone is taking advantage of them. You only hear about the handful of outstanding essays and not the hundreds of thousands of unremarkable ones.

Good essays are so rare that when we received them, we would often feel compelled to circulate them internally. 

In an application season where I reviewed upwards of 1500 individual essays, there were 15-20 I would describe as outstanding and of a high quality.

I worked with a client this year that, despite their 29 on the ACT, gained admission to Plan II/BHP, Cornell, and Brown no doubt due to their outstanding essays and strong recommendation letters despite their academics being below average for the typical admit.

Most students, even the best ones, procrastinate.

At UT, for instance, more than half of all applicants turn in their applications during the last two weeks of the application period. About one-third of all the candidates applies between Thanksgiving and December first. Sure, some of them may have been working for a few months but weren’t ready to press that button until the last minute.

However, the vast majority of applicants, even those who are the most talented, submit their application materials at the last minute. I would know because the quality of applications I reviewed in December and January dropped markedly from the few thousand of the higher-quality submissions we would receive in August and September.

Students who submit their applications earlier are more likely to get admitted. Not because of any internal prejudice or admissions mechanism that rewards those students - UT does not award any "bonus points" either for early submitters or those submitting three essays. 

Early applicants are more likely to put forward thoughtful applications relative to their procrastinating peers.

I can’t count the number of essays and resumes I reviewed from top applicants that phoned it in. I would lament, “Goodness! They have worked so hard for so long inside and outside of school. This is what they have submitted?” It is like watching an elite athlete perform poorly in a big game.

In a minority of cases, I think some applicants believe the strength of their academics alone will carry them through to a successful decision with UT while they focused on more selective universities. They would be in for a rude wake-up call when they were denied honors and their first choice major at their “safety school.” I inevitably fielded angry phone calls from parents shocked at how their son in the top 2% and a 35 could get denied from Mechanical engineering.

I would look up their application, take a quick glance at their essays submitted on November 30, and it was plainly obvious to me that the student could have done a lot more to help their chances. Then, I would give some canned response to the frustrated parent about “competitiveness of the applicant pool” or “historically-high application numbers.”

Secretly, unable to disclose or speculate on their admissions decision, I would suspect with good reason that not only did nobody like a teacher or counselor review that student’s essays, it is probable they didn’t proofread it before submission (see: typos). Likely, students and families would blame factors outside of their control instead of taking ownership that much more could have been done.

What does all of this mean?

There is a huge range of quality when it comes to applications. Most essays and resumes are average at best. Less than 5% of applicants will receive top scores. When an applicant has clearly put thought into their application, tooled their essays, resume, and recommendation letters to work together with one another, and started early, it is so evident to reviewers.

Starting early is one very easy way that an “average” applicant can elevate themselves in the eyes of their admissions reviewers.

I think this partly explains the mystery of how “such and such kid with AWESOME test scores/grades got denied BUT that markedly AVERAGE kid got in! How?” Often, that student put forward a killer application because they knew they couldn’t take their academics for granted. You’re only seeing half of the picture, namely their test scores and grades.

I think many students and families can get intimidated by their well-credentialed peers. But don’t let their posturing fool you. Making even a little bit of extra effort will do volumes for the quality of your application and, consequently, increase your chances of gaining admission.